Battles of Lexington and Concord — George Washington Letter

May 31, 1775

George Washington was a member of the Second Continental Congress when he wrote this letter to his friend in England, George William Fairfax. In the letter, Washington provides his thoughts on the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Lexington and Concord, George Washington Letter

This portrait of George Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1795 (Harvard Art Museums). The background image of the Battle of Lexington was painted by Howard Pyle in 1989 (Google Arts & Culture).

COLONEL GEORGE WASHINGTON TO GEORGE WILLIAM FAIRFAX, ENGLAND.

Philadelphia, May 31, 1775.

DEAR SIR: Before this letter will come to hand, you must undoubtedly have received an account of the engagement in the Massachusetts-Bay, between the Ministerial Troops (for we do not, nor can we yet prevail upon ourselves to call them the King’s Troops) and the Provincials of that Government. But as you may not have heard how that affair began, I enclose you the several affidavits which were taken after the action.

General Gage acknowledges that the detachment under Lieutenant-Colonel Smith was sent out to destroy private property; or, in other words, to destroy a magazine, which self-preservation obliged the inhabitants to establish. And he also confesses, in effect at least, that his men made a very precipitate retreat from Concord, notwithstanding the re-enforcement under Lord Percy; the last of which may serve to convince Lord Sandwich, and others of the same sentiment, that the Americans will fight for their liberties and property, however pusillanimous in his Lordship’s eyes they may appear in other respects.

From the best accounts I have been able to collect of that affair, indeed from every one, I believe the fact, stripped of all colouring, to be plainly this: that if the retreat had not been as precipitate as it was, (and God knows it could not well have been more so,) the Ministerial Troops must have surrendered or been totally cut off; for they had not arrived in Charlestown, under cover of their ships, half an hour, before a powerful body of men from Marblehead and Salem was at their heels, and must, if they had happened to be up one hour sooner, inevitably have intercepted their retreat to Charlestown. Unhappy it is, though, to reflect that a brother’s sword has been sheathed in a brother’s breast, and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood, or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?

I am, with sincere regard and affectionate compliments to Mrs˙ Fairfax, dear Sir, yours, &c.

Five Important Points

  1. George Washington accuses General Thomas Gage of destroying private property, which was needed for the inhabitants of Massachusetts to protect themselves.
  2. Washington refers to the British troops as “Ministerial,” meaning he associates them with Parliament and the Ministry, not King George III.
  3. He says the response of the Massachusetts Militia will make it clear to John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, and other British leaders that the Americans were determined to defend their “liberties and property.”
  4. Washington indicates that General Hugh Percy, who led the British column from Lexington back to Boston, might have been forced to surrender if provincial forces from Marblehead and Salem had responded faster to the Lexington Alarm.
  5. These troops, who were led by Colonel Timothy Pickering, arrived 30-60 minutes too late to trap Percy and force his surrender.

Background and Context of Washington’s Letter

  • The Lexington Alarm took place during the night of April 18–19 and the Battles of Lexington and Concord occurred on the 19th. 
  • Around 9:00 am on the 19th, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety sent an Express Rider, Israel Bissell, to deliver a message to the towns west of Boston.
  • After the Battle of Concord, American forces followed the British back to Boston and started the Siege of Boston.
  • Bissell carried the message to Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. He finally ended his ride at Philadelphia on April 24.
  • Everywhere he went, more riders joined him and the news of the Alarm and the Battles spread, reaching Williamsburg, Virginia on April 25.
  • The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10 and was suddenly in charge of determining how to conduct a war.
  • George Washington was a delegate from Virginia and a member of the Second Continental Congress.
  • The same day Congress met, Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and the Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British.
  • Congress hesitated to take any action that could be considered an attack on the King’s Troops and deliberated how to respond to hostilities.
  • Many members of Congress sought to find a diplomatic solution to end the conflict before the situation escalated and war spread throughout the 13 Colonies.

Interesting Facts and Connections

  • George Washington and General Thomas Gage knew each other and served together during the French and Indian War.
  • Within two weeks of writing this letter, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appealed to the Continental Congress, asking it to take control of the “Army of Observation” that was laying siege to Boston.
  • The Continental Congress responded by organizing the Continental Army (June 14) and appointing Washington as Commander-in-Chief (June 15).
  • The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17. It was the first full-scale battle of the war, and the British attack on American defenses made it clear to Congress that America was at war with Britain.
  • George William Fairfax was a wealthy Virginia planter and a former member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Fairfax was a Loyalist and had returned to England by 1775. Despite their differences regarding British policies in the American Colonies, Washington and Fairfax remained friends until Fairfax died in 1787, two years before Washington was elected as the First President of the United States.

Peter Force and the American Archives Collection

  • This letter is found in American Archives, a collection of primary source documents that was collected and curated by Peter Force.
  • Peter Force was a politician, printer, and archivist from New Jersey who collected books, manuscripts, and other items related to the American Revolution.
  • Force published the American Archives from 1837 to 1853, which reproduced many of the letters and documents related to the Revolution.
  • Unlike many of his contemporaries, Force did not edit the original manuscripts.
  • The Library of Congress purchased his collection in 1867.
  • In 2001, the American Archives was digitized by Northern Illinois University Libraries and is available for all students, teachers, and historians.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Battles of Lexington and Concord — George Washington Letter
  • Date May 31, 1775
  • Author
  • Keywords Battles of Lexington and Concord, George Washington
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 14, 2024

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